Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Books of 2014

As I've done the past couple of years, I wanted to review the books I've read in 2014. These are in no particular order. It helps me to keep track of what I've read and when. So, if I need to diversify a bit or if I need to reconsider a position, I have a reference. So, here goes.
  1. The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb. This was a fascinating read. I highly recommend it to any runner. Bascomb tells the story of three runners chasing the four minute mile. Of course, the one everyone remembers is Roger Bannister. But two other athletes, Australia's John Landy and Kansas's Wes Santee put the pressure on Bannister. This book is the story of each of these three men as they chased the ever so difficult four minute mile. There were several unsuccessful attempts along the way. It's three stories of resilience, dedication, overcoming adversity, triumph, disappointment, and (in the case of Landy) being just a little too late. It was fascinating and inspiring. It's a must-read for any runner, maybe even any competitive athlete.
  2. Daniels' Running Formula (Third Edition) by Jack Daniels. This is the latest update to the essential running coach's handbook. I read this update as part of obtaining my RRCA coaches certificate. As a side note, I'm now an RRCA certified running coach. I'm still trying to figure out how to use this for the most good. For now, I've just been taking some close friends under my wing and rejoicing as they shatter PRs.
  3. Beyond the Church of Christ by Jeremy Campbell. This is a three part kindle e-book. The link I provided with the title is to part one. Definitely read all three. This is a reality-based fiction short story of one young man's journey away from the exclusive theology of the non-institutional churches of Christ. I highly recommend this whole series for anyone who is struggling with doctrines taught in churches of Christ or who is struggling with the unloving treatment that comes with having honest questions in the church of Christ. I'd also recommend it to those in more progressive churches of Christ to better understand what people who leave the non-institutional churches of Christ have been through. This is a very readable and very true, if fiction, story. Besides all of that, the theology contained in the dialog is pretty solid.
  4. Divergent by Veronica Roth. I read this because my daughters were reading it and I like talking to them about what they're reading. This is one of the rare times where I will say that I liked the movie much better than the book. I'll watch the rest of the movies in the trilogy, but won't read the other books.
  5. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. Again, I read this because my girls wanted to read it. I actually pre-read this and struggled with whether to let them read it or not. I decided to let them read it because it provided an opportunity for us to talk about some very important things, like death, cancer, sex, dating, love, God, parents, friends, profanity, how to treat those with serious illness or disabilities, etc. This is a very difficult book to read. It's a book that will shake you. It falls on my all time list of best books ever. Take my man card for liking this book if you must. For my daughters, I made them make a list of words that were new to them and then talk to me about each of those new words, what they mean, how they were used in the book, etc. We also talked about the story as they were reading it. Judge me if you must for letting my then twelve year old daughters read this tragic and morbid and profanity laced book, but it provided some excellent father-daughter discussion that I'm not sure I could have gotten on my own.
  6. The Four Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and John Huling. This is a process book that outlines a set of steps for achieving your goals. It is a very good business read and I'll be putting the process into practice with my team at work in 2015.
  7. Switch: How to Change When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. If you're going to implement a new process (like the Four Disciplines) then you're going to have to change things. This book covers how to effect change in an organization, with an emphasis on change in the business environment. The principles do not assume that you have authority to make changes by dictate. It is an interesting look at what actually drives behavior in people.
  8. Unity and Diversity in the New Testament by James G Dunn. This is probably one of the more difficult books that I've read. The perseverance was worth it, though. This book is not written at a popular level. It's probably a 300-400 level college book. Good stuff. I really like how he points out the differences in the way different New Testament authors referred to Jesus and the differences in the way they quoted Scripture. Excellent read. I found myself disagreeing with Dunn's conclusions often, but I still very much appreciated his work and point of view.
  9. How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.  If you care at all about hermeneutics, you should read this book now. I really like how they make the distinction between exegesis and hermeneutics.
  10. Scripture and the Authority of God by NT Wright. In my opinion, NT Wright is the best Christian author of our time, and it isn't even close. This is a brilliant look at what authority means. Instead of using our definition of authority and forcing Scripture into that, Wright recommends that we allow Scripture to define and shape what Scripture means by authority. This is another very good look at hermeneutics and how to approach the Bible. I actually read this book twice this year.
  11. Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit by Francis Chan. This is a very challenging read. Not challenging in the sense of difficult to understand. It's actually very straightforward. It's challenging in the sense of "Do you really want the Holy Spirit to dwell in you?" It's a very good read.
  12. Muscle and a Shovel: A Review by John Mark Hicks.This is a kinder review than I could ever have given of Muscle and a Shovel. Hicks points out that there is a fundamental difference in approach to Scripture between himself and Shank. Shank asks in essence, "What does the Bible legally require of me?" Hicks suggests that a better question is this, "What is God's mission and how can I join that mission?"
  13. I did read through Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank another time this year, just to see if I could possibly understand how some think this is such an excellent book. And, I just can't figure it out, except that the narrative is so very well done. Apart from the narrative, however, its tone is arrogant and condescending and its theology is just bad. Here is an excellent review by Garrett Best.
  14. The Ultimate Heresy: The Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy by Rodger L. Cragun. I randomly met the author of this book while on business travel and we discussed theology over dinner and I picked up this book from him. I really like how he challenges the reader to ask the question, "What is the word of God?" He takes a look at how Scripture uses that phrase (word of God) and points out that Scripture clearly refers to other things besides Scripture when it uses that phrase.
  15. Mind's Eye by Douglas E. Richards. This was a fun read. A pretty exciting sci-fi thriller. No spoilers, but if you like sci-fi thriller mysteries, you'll probably like this book.
  16. The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter by Craig Lancaster. The characters are very well developed and complex. Every character except the narrator's love has flaws. It's a bit of brilliance that her flaws don't show. This novel isn't at all about the plot. It's about the characters. Realistic. Flawed. Good. Bad. It's a great view of how every human is in some ways a walking contradiction. It's also both timely and timeless. It's set in the present day and the common use of technology and modern medicine and current pop culture make an appearance, but don't dominate. The human nature that is timeless dominates. It is a story of love and loss and anger and frustration and lucky breaks and squandered opportunities and beautiful selfless love. It's also a peek into the underbelly of blood sports which honestly disturbed me a bit.
  17. I also read through two volumes of a workbook titled "First Principles of Christianity" by Robert Harkrider. I have nothing good or nice to say about those workbooks. Horrible, exclusive, pat-answer, shallow theology.
That's fewer books than I wanted to read this year. I read more novels than I realized, which is a good thing. Just reading theology was honestly wearing me out. I have no real good place to discuss the theology I read, so I have to keep it bottled up inside. It sometimes makes me want to explode. Most people just aren't as interested in the theology as I am or they judge me and issue me a one way ticket to hell for considering different points of view. So, reading novels was very refreshing (well, except Divergent which took so much effort just to get through the teeny-bop googly infatuation).

Besides the books, I am still reading various church bulletins, blogs, and running magazines. I'm considering various viewpoints, not just those agreeable to me.

I have a difficult time picking a favorite this year. I almost want to pick a favorite in each category, but I'll just pick one for the year. That one is...

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb. I really enjoyed learning more about the story of the four minute mile. Excellent read.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Baptism and Fellowship

Over the past few days, an article has appeared on my Facebook news feed a few times, and I want to make some comments about it. The title of the article is "Time for Churches of Christ to Fellowship Other Groups?"

Go ahead and read the article, because I'll be discussing a theme in that article in this post. I think I'm reading that article correctly when I say that the author builds the case that the Church of Christ should not extend Christian fellowship to other groups. That is a belief that is widely held and taught in churches of Christ. I could probably find dozens of articles on the Internet that make a very similar argument.

This one interests me because the author specifically mentions baptism to illustrate why he believes we should not extend fellowship to believers in groups other than the Church of Christ. This article helped me realize that the Church of Christ position on baptism is at the center of the belief that fellowship should not be extended. This belief is sometimes referred to by others as the belief that "they're the only ones going to heaven". So, in this post, I want to look at baptism and how it relates to fellowship in churches of Christ.

But before I do that, I want to mention that I almost agree with what the Church of Christ teaches about baptism. I appreciate the willingness to restore baptism’s importance. The theologies of the reformation went too far in their insistence on faith only and distanced baptism from salvation. Since baptism isn't faith, they argue, it is not connected at all to salvation. However, I do not believe this is correct because the Bible very often connects baptism to salvation. So, I agree with the Church of Christ's emphasis on the immediacy of baptism.

However, I believe that the discussions of baptism in the Church of Christ over the past 50 to 100 years have unnecessarily reduced baptism to essentially two positions. The church of Christ position is that baptism is absolutely essential for salvation and nobody gets to heaven without it. The other position is that baptism is not essential to salvation at all and it may be postponed for weeks or even months. I don’t think the Bible teaches either of these positions, but I believe that the church of Christ position is closer to what the Bible actually does teach about baptism.

Now, let’s look at baptism and how it relates to fellowship in the Church of Christ. The Church of Christ has attached baptism to salvation. There is significant biblical support for that. However, we also have attached understanding the purpose of baptism to salvation, and there simply isn't any biblical support for that. The Bible says, (Mark 16:16) “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” The Bible does not say, “Whoever believes and understands the purpose of baptism and is baptized will be saved.” The Bible says, (Acts 2:38) “Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.” The Bible does not say, “Repent and understand the purpose of baptism and be baptized for the remission of sins.” The Church of Christ has added “understand the purpose of baptism” as a condition for salvation. The Bible does not attach such an understanding to salvation.

The Church of Christ teaches a five step plan of salvation. (I do not believe in a “five step plan”. I believe that salvation is far more intimate than any step by step process or procedure, but that's a different topic.) However, in practice, we really have believed in a six step plan of salvation. We can provide a Bible verse for five of the steps, but not all six. In our explicit teaching of the plan, we do not include all six. This extra step usually comes up when someone responds to our teaching about baptism with, “But I’ve already been baptized.” After this response, there will often be an effort to show that the baptism was invalid because the person didn't understand the purpose of baptism. "You were not really saved," some say, "because you did not do it for the right purpose. You must be baptized for the right purpose in order to be saved."

Here is the six step plan that I've never seen documented anywhere or heard formally taught, but that we have practically taught.
  1. Hear. (Romans 10:14-17)
  2. Believe. (John 3:16)
  3. Repent. (Luke 13:3,5; Acts 2:38)
  4. Confess. (Romans 10:9)
  5. Understand the purpose of baptism. (There is no Bible verse that connects this to salvation.)
  6. Be baptized. (Mark 16:16)
The result of adding “understand the purpose of baptism” as a condition for salvation is requiring people to be baptized again in order to be accepted. Even someone who was baptized by choice in an effort to obey God, but didn’t understand the purpose of baptism before their baptism, must be baptized again, according to many in the Church of Christ. In effect, we have told people who were previously baptized as an act of faithful obedience that God did not accept their obedience.

The God of the Bible accepted the worship of those in Hezekiah’s day (2 Chron. 30:1-27) even though they did so “otherwise than was written” (2 Chron. 30:18). The God of the Bible looks at the heart and honors obedience from the heart. Technical soteriological understanding is never a biblical requirement for God to honor the obedience of a tender and contrite heart. We (the Church of Christ) need to stop requiring this understanding before we honor the baptisms of others.

Adding the requirement of understanding the purpose of baptism as a condition for salvation serves to separate the Church of Christ from other baptized believers in Jesus. So, baptism becomes a very divisive and isolating issue in the Church of Christ. Jesus prayed for unity. Separating from other believers in Him based on an extra-biblical requirement for understanding does not promote the unity that He prayed for.

The article that I mentioned at the beginning of this post suggests that in order to extend fellowship, because of his beliefs about baptism, he would have to abandon logic, conviction, and scripture.

I wouldn't ask someone to abandon logic I actually very much encourage a well-reasoned faith.

I wouldn't ask anyone to abandon conviction. I would persuade someone to change convictions based on reason and scripture, but not abandon them.

And I'm certainly not asking for anyone to abandon scripture. I actually believe that the extra requirement that the Church of Christ has placed on baptism is not in Scripture and we should get rid of the extra-biblical requirement of understanding the purpose of baptism as a prerequisite to salvation.

At the end of the article, he asks, "Can there ever be unity?" There can never be unity as long as we continue to use baptism as a divisive issue. Instead of using baptism to divide believers, we should honor baptism as the entrance into a covenant with Jesus by bodily confessing His death, burial, and resurrection and continuing to live the new life, proclaiming the resurrection which promotes healing and sharing and unity bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth..

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review: Beyond the Church of Christ

A friend recommended that I check out Beyond the Church of Christ: Kingdom Life Outside the Walls by Jeremy Campbell. Wow is really all I can say.

Here is the author's description of this short story:
Using the format of a fictional story instead of dry commentary, Beyond The “Church of Christ” is a story of a young man's journey from fundamentalism to freedom, from legalism to liberty.
Though brought up to believe that only members of the “Church of Christ” are true Christians, 24 year old Jason Gibson (concerned at the eternal fate of his departed uncle, who was a devout believer though not a part of the CoC) has now begun questioning some of the core doctrines he was raised in.
Jason sets out in furious pursuit of answers to some troubling questions, embarking on a journey that will change his view of baptism, the church, and Hell. It’s a life-changing journey that is at once both liberating and frightening as he awakens to the glories of God’s grace, yet is now faced with the reality of being ostracized from his family.

The short story is written in three parts, and you can get all three parts for less than $5 total, less than $2 total if you're an Amazon Prime member. Seriously, go get these Kindle books now. Right now. It's an excellent story. It's well written and well told. This guy is a seriously good storyteller. And more than that, he really gets what it's like to study, pray, and agonize over a point of doctrine and come to an honest disagreement with the Church of Christ. Most in the Church of Christ reject the concept of an honest disagreement. So if you have ever had one, you'll instantly relate to the story's protagonist, Jason Gibson. And if you've ever spoken such a disagreement out loud, you'll really relate to the way he was treated.

Several of you may have read or may be aware of a book called Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank. If you have read Muscle and a Shovel, especially if you recommended it to me, please, please read this short story. This story is the inverse of Muscle and a Shovel. In Muscle and a Shovel, Mike was raised a Baptist and studied his way into the Church of Christ. In Beyond the Church of Christ, Jason was raised in the Church of Christ and studied his way out of it.

Part One: Click here for the Kindle book.
Part one has a very well done and concise history of the American Restoration Movement, which is the movement that gave birth to the Church of Christ as we know it today. (Though many in the Church of Christ deny this, the historical evidence is overwhelming that every Church of Christ today can trace its history and theology right back to the American Restoration Movement in the 1800s.) Following this, he sets up the background for the beginning of his journey, which is the tragic and accidental death of his Uncle Mark.

Part Two: Click here for the Kindle book.
In part two, Jason begins his journey by discussing two very hot button Church of Christ doctrines: baptism and the pattern for worship. His Aunt Gayle patiently guides him through this discussion. I will say that this is the best and most concise discussion and refutation of the Church of Christ proof texts for baptism that I have ever seen. Campbell does an excellent job of avoiding straw men throughout this story. When he says that the Church of Christ teaches or believes something, he takes great care to represent their teaching accurately. This is a very refreshing approach! I am often guilty of misrepresenting someone when I disagree, and I really appreciate his resisting that ever-so-easy temptation.

Part Three: Click here for the Kindle book.
In part three, after a few conversations with Aunt Gayle, Jason is faced with the horrible dilemma that anyone who honestly disagrees with the Church of Christ has. Will he keep quiet or will he risk the pain of ostracism, even being cut off from his own family? He tries keeping quiet, but eventually he says something, and that leads to the dreaded "meeting with the elders" that anyone who has spoken a disagreement out loud has had to endure. That meeting goes just about the way one would expect such a meeting to go. From there, he actually disagrees with his Aunt Gayle on the topic of hell. And guess what? They don't have a falling out! They are able to continue showing love and sharing a close friendship in the presence of disagreement, and a significant disagreement at that! Learning to disagree without dividing is a skill that many Christians need to learn. Also, throughout part three, as in parts one and two, he avoids straw men.

This short story is refreshingly honest. It hits me so close to home. How many Jason Gibsons are in the Church of Christ right now? How many Jason Gibsons have left the Church of Christ?

The story also deals very honestly and fairly with the idea that the Church of Christ teaches that they are the only ones going to heaven. I believe that doctrine is the most pernicious and the most toxic of any doctrine that the Church of Christ teaches. Abandoning that doctrine would allow the Church of Christ to do so much more good in God's kingdom than they do now. The churches that have abandoned it are already accomplishing great good and training disciples to be more like Him.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Bible Says It: Part 3

This is the third in a set of posts pointing out that nobody "just does what the Bible says". We all have times where we say, "The Bible says ..., but that doesn't mean ..." My point in these posts is NOT that we should do "just what the Bible says." My point is NOT that we should reject the Bible. My point is that we should stop pretending to do "just what the Bible says." No one "just does what the Bible says", even if he's thoroughly convinced that he does. I don't do that, and I now realize that I didn't do that even when I was thoroughly convinced that I did.

If you want to catch up, you can read the first post and then the second post. Or you can find all the posts with the tag "but that doesn't mean".

In this post I plan to point out more examples where people who claim to follow the Bible read it and then say, "But that doesn't mean". This installment will list some areas of practical application, both collective and individual. I'll start with one that is more or less unique to my heritage, the non-institutional churches of Christ.

  1. The Bible says (James 1:27) that pure and undefiled religion is to visit orphans and widows. But that doesn't mean that the church is authorized to help widows and orphans. Some argue that the church cannot do this good deed collectively; rather this good deed is reserved exclusively for individuals. The arguments against the church helping orphans and widows are very complex and involved and only a very, very few people have ever understood and even fewer have ever agreed with them. In order to forbid a church from helping orphans, you have to understand specific and generic authority in a certain subjective way. I find it odd that "specific and generic authority" are never mentioned in the Bible yet these subjective principles restrict this very clear statement in the Bible. Then there are these very subjective rules about what an individual may do versus what a church may do, and yet these rules don't apply to singing (and other things) for some reason. It's a very complex, nearly nonsensical set of mental gymnastics that one has to go through to teach that a church collectively helping widows and orphans is a damnable sin. I've described this practice as the non-institutional church of Christ version of Corban (Mark 7:9-13), and I don't think that's a big stretch. "Helping widows and orphans is an individual responsibility," they say. When it comes time to actually help widows and orphans, the individual funds are often already allocated for the weekly contribution to the church, which is for saving souls (and paving parking lots and climate controlling an oversized building which is only used 4 hours per week and replacing carpet etc., expedient things). And after all, saving souls, some would argue, is far more important than helping widows and orphans. This sounds a LOT like Corban in Mark 7:9-13. James 1:27 is a very simple, straightforward description of religion. But it doesn't mean what it simply says.
  2. Jesus said in Matt. 9:15 that His disciples would fast. But that doesn't mean that Christians must fast. I don't really understand why this verse and several more like it about fasting are completely ignored by many Christians claiming to "just do what the Bible says". I know a lot of Christians who have made a lot more out of a lot less (see Acts 20:7). Why not obey God in this simple yet effective spiritual discipline? Both churches and individuals generally ignore fasting. It's almost never practiced collectively outside of the churches that observe Lent. When I observed Lent and told about it, I received some harsh criticism for following the commandments of men. Actually, I was taking an opportunity to join other Christians in a fast; something Jesus seemed to expect His disciples to do. Which of God's commandments can we ignore while claiming to do "just what the Bible says"? Just the ones we agree to ignore, I suppose. The Bible says (multiple times) that Jesus' disciples will fast. But that doesn't mean that Christians must fast.
  3. James 2:2-4 says we should not show partiality to those in the assembly who dress in fine clothes... but that doesn't mean you don't have to dress up for church. I've seen this discussed on Facebook recently, and I've heard it most all of my life. This passage has the most to say about what people wear at an assembly, and the essence of this passage is, "If you show favoritism based on clothing, you have evil thoughts." In spite of what James says, there are still many churches that have unwritten dress codes. I've been turned down from public participation in a worship service because I didn't have on a tie. And I've heard private criticisms of others because they are not "dressed up enough". James says that these distinctions based on clothing indicate evil thoughts. The arguments for dressing up run the gamut of "meeting the President" to "appropriate for a wedding or funeral" to "priestly garments". They're complex, nuanced, cultural arguments to explain away a very simple Bible text.

There are many more examples. To close, I want to reiterate my main point here. We don't just do what the Bible says. You don't. I don't. At best, we do what we believe the Bible says. There's a big difference between what the Bible says and what someone believes the Bible means. When I think I actually do "just what the Bible says", then I am in grave danger of equating my interpretation with the very commands of God.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Thousand Generations

Today, during my daily Bible reading I read Deuteronomy 5. I went into the chapter thinking "It's a fairly simple text. It's just a restatement of the Ten Commandments. I can skim this quickly." One day, I'll learn my lesson about presuming that I know what the Bible says.

I stumbled across Deut. 5:9-10. Somehow I missed this in my daily Bible reading when I came across Ex. 20:5-6 (probably because I was thinking "I already know the 10 commandments"), but it is indeed in Exodus also. 
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Two things stood out to me here. First is that I've misunderstood God's justice. Second is that I've misunderstood God's mercy and love.

Regarding justice, I've always believed that God punishes those who are guilty and rewards those who are righteous. This is what justice is, and God is just. My sins are just that, my own sins. Others' sins are just that, their own sins. I will give an account for myself and nobody else, and nobody else will be accountable for me. I won't be accountable for my dad and he won't be accountable for me, other than how he raised me. Likewise with my children, I won't be accountable for them other than how I've raised them. I've based that mostly on the 18th chapter of Ezekiel, especially Ezekiel 18:20. I don't have this all figured out, but it seems obvious to me that the Bible has more to say about this than just one chapter in Ezekiel.

I've heard it said, "God doesn't have any grandchildren," but I don't remember reading that in the Bible. I suppose that statement is made to encourage people to make their faith their own. I agree with that sentiment, to be sure. But I'm finding over and over in my study that God cares deeply about the families of those who love Him. Obedience to God does good for more than just the one who is obedient. Hatred for God does harm to more than just the one who hates God.

God's covenant with Noah included Noah's descendants (Gen. 9:9), and people today still benefit from that covenant. God's covenant with Abraham included Abraham's descendants (Gen. 17:7) and people today still benefit from that covenant. In Genesis 26:5, God specifically tells Isaac that He will bless him and his descendants because Abraham obeyed. When Moses pleads with God to spare the people, he refers back to Abraham (Ex. 32:13; Deut. 9:27). This concept appears over and over.

This is not strictly an Old Testament concept, either. We have many references to the covenant with Abraham in the New Testament. We have Acts 2:39 (a beautiful and often overlooked verse that immediately follows the favorite verse of my heritage) that tells us that God's promise is to "you and your children who are far off." And then we have this odd passage in 1 Corinthians that seems to indicate that God cares deeply for the families of those who love Him.
1 Cor. 7:14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
I don't have all the answers here, but it appears that there is much more to God's justice than punishing the guilty and rewarding the righteous.

Now, regarding God's mercy in this passage (Deut. 5:9-10), I've had a skewed view of mercy. I've viewed God's mercy as being very limited. I had an idea that very, very, very few people had actually figured out the conditions for receiving God's mercy.

I've believed that God's punishment is more severe, or at least much farther reaching, than God's mercy and grace. When I've had to justify why there are so few who believe in the same plan of salvation I believed in or why so few have deciphered the same rules for worship that I have, I have used those "narrow is the gate and few find it" passages. The rest suffer consciously eternally with no hope of even a moment of relief. So, very, very few will receive God's mercy and those who do, it's because of a lot of intelligence, work, and luck on their part. And the punishment for missing it is unimaginable and the sheer number of people suffering that punishment is overwhelming.

This passage says something quite different. According to Deut. 5:9-10 (and Ex. 20:5-6 and Deut. 7:9 and and and), where God punishes iniquity, it is very limited in comparison to the steadfast love that He shows. It's like three or four compared to thousands. I implore you. Read Deut. 5:9-10 and ask yourself, "Which is greater, God's mercy or God's punishment?" I'm afraid I've gotten this exactly backwards. I've viewed God's mercy as limited and for a very few and nearly impossible to receive. I've viewed God's punishment as for nearly everyone. God delights in showing mercy. He does not want to punish.

Over and over the Bible says it. Mercy is better. God delights in mercy. We need to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus crucified. Otherwise, we'll get it terribly wrong, maybe even exactly backwards.

Mercy triumphs over judgment. The Bible says that several times in several ways (James 2:13 immediately comes to mind), and it is stated most emphatically in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was judged without mercy and put to death while He showed mercy to those who killed Him. And Jesus won. God's steadfast love, as revealed in Jesus, wins.

And may I learn to delight in showing mercy, more like Him.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Bible Says It: Part 2

Last week Zack Hunt posted an article at The American Jesus about bad theology. The article was prompted by the death of Jamie Coots from a snake bite. (If you didn't already know, Jamie Coots was featured on the reality show Snake Salvation on National Geographic Channel.) His death is tragic. I don't plan to criticize Jamie Coots' practices or pretend I'm superior to him in this post. Rather I plan to point out how that "the Bible says it; that settles it" doesn't work for anyone, snake handler or not.

Zack points out that this tragedy is a case where bad theology directly led to death. That's a true point. He goes on to point out that bad theology often leads to harm and death to others, not just those who subscribe to the bad theology. Another true point. A main point of the article is that nobody does just what the Bible says. This summary from the article is spot on and is the point I want to emphasize in this post.
So, never forget that the truth of the matter is you’re not simply doing what the Bible says to do.
You’re doing what you think the Bible says to do.
And that’s a really, really important difference.
This article reminded me that I wrote a post with a similar main point a while back and said I'd write more. As background for the rest of this post, I encourage you to read that post, titled The Bible Says It; That Settles It. I mentioned in that post that I had 30 or so examples of times that many Christians who say they "just do what the Bible says" really don't. Nobody just does what the Bible says. Nobody even just does what the New Testament says. 

We all have times where we say, "The Bible says ..., but that doesn't mean ..." 

So, here are four more examples of "but that doesn't mean". 
  1. Since I began with a reference to Jamie Coots, I'll start with this exception that's invoked by most everyone who isn't a snake handling Pentecostal. The Bible says (Mark 16:17-18) that signs will accompany those who believe, including picking up serpents with their hands, drinking deadly poison without harm, speaking in tongues, and healing the sick. But that doesn't mean that believers can handle snakes, drink poison, speak in tongues, or heal the sick. I'm not arguing for these things. I agree with this exception. I think Jamie Coots is an example that this verse at least did not apply to him. I don't believe it applies to me, either. My point is this: You and I don't just do what the Bible says. (Neither did Jamie Coots; he had his exceptions, too.) An interesting thing about this passage is that in the churches I've been a part of, Mark 16:15-16 applies to everyone for all time (even though it's addressed only to the apostles), but Mark 16:17-18 does not (even though those signs are for believers, not just the apostles). The reasons given that verses 17 and 18 don't apply are complex and nuanced. You have to prove that miraculous powers could only be passed by laying on of apostles hands (impossible to prove). Then, you have to prove that all the apostles are dead and that there were only the original 12 plus Mathias and Paul but no more apostles (not an easy task as we'll see next). You have to prove that the only purpose miracles served was to "confirm the word". And finally, you have to prove that the canon is closed. In short, you need extra-biblical sources to build a complex case that the Bible doesn't mean what it clearly says. And many make this complex argument while claiming the Bible is simple and we "just do what the Bible says." I'm not very familiar with snake handling Pentecostal theology, but it wouldn't surprise me if they more or less ignore verse 16 while building an identity based on verses 17 and 18. The truth is that we pick and choose from the Bible, often choosing some verses while disregarding others in the same immediate context. We all do. You do. I do. As long as a person refuses to admit this, a discussion about interpreting and applying the Bible is a futile waste of time.
  2. The Bible says that Barnabas was an apostle (Acts 14:14), but that doesn't mean Barnabas was an apostle. Some say that there were no more apostles besides the original 12, Mathias, and Paul. Limiting the apostles to these "official apostles" is key to a few anti-charismatic arguments. Some insist that Barnabas was indeed NOT an apostle no matter what Acts 14:14 says. Neither was Titus (2 Cor. 8:23) nor Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25) nor Timothy nor Silas (1 Thes. 2:6). Even the mention Junia (Rom. 16:7) may get you burned at the stake. There is no way SHE was an apostle. Some insist that there were twelve plus Mathias and Paul and that is all. In these verses that call others apostles, "apostle" doesn't mean "apostle". The Bible calls those people apostles, but it doesn't mean they were apostles. Some deny that these people were apostles while claiming to "just believe what the Bible says." The arguments against these other apostles require some knowledge of Greek, something you'll only learn from a source external to the Bible. When can we admit that we don't "just follow the Bible"?
  3. Another verse that non-charismatics make an exception for is this. The Bible says (1 Cor. 14:39) "do not forbid speaking in tongues" but that doesn't mean we can't forbid speaking in tongues in our assembly. Speaking in tongues is absolutely forbidden in every church where I've been a member based on a dubious interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:8-13. This interpretation does grave injustice to the theme of the resurrection in Paul's writings. To dismiss 1 Cor. 14:39 based on that forced interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:8-18, you have to prove that the canon was under consideration by Paul in 1 Cor 13. You have to prove that the canon is closed, which is impossible to do without extra-biblical sources. Then you run into the problem of when exactly the gifts ceased. Did they cease when there were no more people alive who had received gifts from the apostles (here we are faced with that messy apostle problem again) or was the Spirit involved in preserving and settling the canon? I hear the same people insisting that spiritual gifts ceased after the death of those on whom the apostles laid their hands also insisting that the Spirit guided the selection of the books to be included in the New Testament. I'm sorry, but you can't have it both ways. Either the gifts stopped and men selected the canon or the gifts continued and allowed the Spirit to select the canon. Anyway, some indeed forbid speaking in tongues, flatly disobeying what 1 Cor. 14:39 says, all while claiming to "just do what the Bible says."
  4. And finally for this post and finally on the anti-charismatic theme. (There probably are more on this theme, but these are all I plan to write about.) The Bible says in Acts 2:38 to repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. But that doesn't mean you'll actually receive any gift of the Holy Spirit. This verse is one that is cut in two by so many. The Christians I know who (rightly, I might add) emphasize the role of baptism quote the "repent and be baptized for the remission of sins" more often than almost any other verse in the Bible, but they typically ignore, stutter, say "um, uh, um," about the "gift of the Holy Spirit" part. Unless the gift of the Holy Spirit is just salvation itself they typically have no idea what to do with this last part. According to their theology, if this "gift of the Holy Spirit" means that you'll have anything from the Holy Spirit in any way except for memorizing the Bible, you shouldn't expect it. But the repent and be baptized part of that verse is the centerpiece of soteriology, more often quoted than even John 3:16. On the other hand,  those who are more charismatic take the second part of this verse and lean on it, and sometimes equate a miraculous experience with salvation. These people practically ignore the "repent and be baptized" part. They may even substitute a "sinner's prayer" for baptism while overemphasizing the "gift of the Holy Spirit". Many go so  far as to say that if you haven't had a miraculous experience, then you haven't been saved. (I often wonder who gave them the authority to say who is and who isn't saved.) Not surprisingly, both sides claim to "just do what the Bible says." But neither side really does what the Bible says. Neither side really accepts a plain reading of just this one verse.
I want to be abundantly clear here. I don't subscribe to charismatic theology, especially not charismatic soteriology or liturgy. I'm not saying that the "but that doesn't mean" exceptions in this post are right or wrong. I'm saying that we all sometimes have to say, "But that doesn't mean." I have my own "but that doesn't mean" exceptions. I admit that. I don't "just do what the Bible says". Neither do you, no matter how convinced you are that you do. That's my point. Can we please stop saying that we "just do what the Bible says"? It's an arrogant claim. It leads us to say that anyone who doesn't do exactly what we do just doesn't care what the Bible says. I assure you that I care very deeply what the Bible says and it's insulting and rude for someone to say that I don't. Also, it would be insulting and rude for me to say that you don't care. This "we just do what the Bible says" is a dangerous manifestation of pride.

Several years ago I heard a sermon about fellowship. The preacher said that he was asked about where he draws the line of fellowship, and he said that he doesn't draw lines. He said God draws the lines and he just searches to find where God has drawn the lines. I vehemently disagree. He draws lines because he doesn't fellowship everyone. So, he draws lines where he thinks God has drawn them. We must get this difference. What you believe about the Bible is just that. It's what you believe about the Bible. Your lines are just that. They're your lines. They're not God's lines. My lines are just that; they're my lines. They're not God's lines. For me to claim that my lines are God's lines is dangerously proud.

It's a subtle step to go from "We say what God says," to "What we say, God says." While proudly claiming the first, "We say what God says," I'm afraid many have unconsciously made the step to the second, "What we say, God says." That subtle step makes a HUGE difference, and it can be avoided by understanding that there is a difference between what you think God says and what God actually says.

Don't confuse what you believe about the Bible with what the Bible actually says. They're different. For every single one of us, those two things are different things.

Before two people can have a productive discussion, both must admit that they're interpreting the Bible, not "just reading it". You lean on what others have taught you and so do I. You lean on what you already know, and so do I. You and I lean on the work of scholars, even if we don't think we do. (Who translated the Bible to your language if not scholars? If you can read the original language, who taught you if not scholars? If you lean on a lexicon, who wrote that lexicon if not scholars? Etc.) We come to a better understanding of God by community. I depend on others to help me understand better. I hope that I'm able to help others understand better. This community is a beautiful, God-ordained blessing. Let us never get to the point that we believe that we are the ones helping and not receiving help from others. Let us never think that we are the only source of truth and that we are God's only true mouthpiece.

And by the way, there are many more of these exceptions.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

"Why They Left" Survey

Dr. Brad Harrub and others at Focus Press put together a survey last year to learn more about people who left the churches of Christ and why they chose to do so. They compiled the results and published a summary in the December 2013 issue of Think Magazine. By popular demand, they have made the December 2013 issue available for download for a mere $2.50. It was well worth it to me to purchase and read the results of that survey. I do recommend that you order water instead of a soft drink at your next restaurant meal and take the $2.50 savings and buy this issue.

The survey was quite broad. Focus Press claims that they had the largest sample size ever for a survey of former members of the Church of Christ. Admittedly, the survey ended up being better than I expected. I think the survey could have been better if they had gotten professionals to help them word their questions and then gotten professionals to help them interpret the results. Overall, though, the survey was admirably done and provides some interesting information.

I'm not a professional at writing survey questions and interpreting the results. I have written and interpreted several surveys and I have done so with the help of professionals in the past, so I'm not unfamiliar with the process. This survey really interested me, so I'll share some of my conclusions for what they're worth.

There were 25 questions that were reported in the December issue.  I won't go into all 25 questions, but there are a few that really stood out to me. The three questions that stood out to me the most were questions 17, 20, and 10.

Question number 17: How much Bible training did you get in your home?
Home Bible training of those who left the church of Christ
If the sample is representative of those who left, then over half (51%) of those who left got significant Bible teaching at home. So it's reasonable to conclude that over half of folks who are leaving are not ignorant of the Bible. Further confirming this conclusion is question number 20, which asks how often respondents attended Bible class at the Church of Christ. Nearly 60% (59.8%) always or frequently attended Bible class at the Church of Christ. The folks who are leaving generally are not untrained. Over half know what the Bible says and they know what the Church of Christ teaches.

Now, combine that with question number 10 which says: "Rank in order the things that turned you away from the Church of Christ." Based on the fact that over half who left the Church of Christ had significant Bible training, it should be noteworthy if doctrine is a leading factor in this response. Check it out below.
Higher number means more significant factor in leaving
Hypocrisy is not surprisingly the most significant factor averaging 7.4 out of a possible 10. People leaving other evangelical churches are also citing hypocrisy as a big reason for leaving. This is a problem in churches of every kind and was a problem in Jesus day as well. Hypocrisy is simply a human problem. Leaving church won't separate you from hypocrisy. I'm not saying that we should just accept hypocrisy. It is a problem and we need to acknowledge it and repent. I'm just saying that it is not a problem unique to the Church of Christ.

It caught my attention, however, that the ubiquitous problem of hypocrisy is practically even with the next two reasons, legalism and doctrine that was taught. There isn't a close fourth. Both legalism and doctrine averaged 7.3 out of a possible 10. Legalism is a form of doctrine and an attitude toward doctrine, so the next two are directly related to doctrine. Given that many who left know the Bible, should this not at least give reason to pause and perhaps reexamine the doctrine that is taught?

Most people who know and believe the Bible disagree with the doctrines of the Church of Christ.

There were a couple of more open ended questions that allowed the respondents to answer the question in their own words. Questions like "Why did you leave?" and "How would you describe the church of Christ?" Not surprisingly based on my observations up to this point, many of these responses talk about doctrine. In addition, I noticed that many of the responses not only mention doctrine, but also emphasize the attitude that the Church of Christ has toward doctrine. Here are a few sample responses from those who left. These are not my words. These come directly from the survey.
The legalism snuffed out every ounce of true joy I had in knowing Christ, until I got to the point where I couldn't remember what I loved about Him.
Arrogance of leaders who seemed to not read the entire Bible, yet were quite convinced that they had ultimate knowledge and authority when taking Scripture out of context for their own agenda.
Works oriented. Very poor understanding of grace. 
Self-centered. Harsh. Judgmental. Condemning.
A legalistic law loving church. 
Of all the Christian churches I've been involved in over the years, none preach more divisive hatred than Church of Christ franchises. 
Judgment and hypocrisy. Overall feel was very reminiscent of the Pharisees, very legalistic without the heart of Christ. “In spirit and truth" was quoted, but focus was entirely on truth (black & white rules, God is a well understood box) and lacking in spirit. I also listened to entire sermons on how other groups (Catholics, Baptists, etc) are doing things wrong and going to hell. What happened to worrying about the plank in our own eyes before trying to take out the speck in another's? I also was made to feel like a second class inferior citizen simply because I'm female...and I'm not even a feminist type! I was a 4th generation Church of Christ member, with a grandfather and a dad as an Elder and Deacon. 
Many more like that were published, and I would guess that there were many more that were not published.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns once said, "It would be a gift if God let us see ourselves as others see us." The Church of Christ has now been given this gift. The question is, "What will they do with this gift?"

There are some churches who recognize that the Church of Christ has been guilty of harshness, legalism, and clinging to traditions of men and elevating those traditions to the status of what is written in the Bible. These churches are abandoning their judgmental and condemning ways. They're reexamining many long-held Church of Christ doctrines and changing their positions. I applaud these churches and hope they will continue this change in spite of opposition by other churches. They are using the gift for good.

Many others seem to be choosing instead to blame those who left. I've already heard and read things about those who left like, "They are ignorant of the Bible." (Though I think the survey results show that is not generally true.) I've heard, "They just want to do whatever they want and don't care what's right." I've heard, "So and so left because he's too educated or too smart to accept the truth." Some have said that those who left are just bitter people. Others have quibbled over the definition of legalism, suggesting that "legalism" doesn't really mean anything or suggesting that legalism is a good thing. (About legalism, I may not be able to precisely define it and set exact parameters for what is legalism and what is not, but as Justice Potter Stewart may say, "I know it when I see it.")

Another response to those who left that I've heard is perhaps the worst offense. It is insulting. It is an obvious shift in blame and an obvious trivialization of a person's very real experience. I believe that the people who give this response really do mean well, but the words are harmful. This worst offense is something like this, "Your experience is unfortunate, but it is unique and not all churches of Christ are like that." Or maybe it is said like this, "It's just that church. Westside (or Smith Road or Central or whatever church this person goes to) is not like that." Again, I think the broad sample and the consistency of the responses in the survey show that many churches ARE "like that" and that a negative experience is actually quite common. What this response fails to account for is that people are leaving for the same reasons from churches all over the United States. And more than likely, the church said to be not "like that" is indeed more "like that" than its members realize.

These and other responses of this sort are an attempt to shift blame and exonerate the Church of Christ. Some even take pride in the fact that they're running people off, citing passages about a "remnant" and a "narrow gate". It seems that people leaving and the shrinking numbers in the Church of Christ somehow in their mind validates the "trueness" of the doctrine.

Taking this blame shifting approach demonstrates a belief that the Church of Christ has no need to change what it's doing to run people off. This blame shifting will ensure that it keeps running people off. Are some who left ignorant? Are some who left trusting in man's wisdom over God's wisdom? Are some who left not really concerned with what the Bible says? Are some churches worse than others? Of course the answer to all of those questions is "yes". Some of the survey responses indicate all of these. However, the majority of responses that show that many are leaving because they believe the Church of Christ is guilty of having made-up rules and harsh enforcement of those rules. Among people leaving are preachers, deacons, Bible class teachers, and even some elders. Simply put, the Church of Christ is losing some of its best Bible students and some of its most spiritually minded people.

So what can be done to fix it?

It's obvious that doctrine is a factor for people leaving the Church of Christ. Based on my experience, based on my discussions with people who left or are considering leaving, and based on the responses in this survey, I believe there's another factor. It seems to me that people aren't leaving the Church of Christ primarily because of its doctrine. I think it's the combination of the doctrine and the attitude toward the doctrine. Put another way, people aren't leaving so much because they believe the Church of Christ is wrong. It's more that the Church of Christ is wrong but doesn't believe it's wrong.

My overall observation after reading the results of this survey and after reading some of the findings of Flavil Yeakley from his 2012 book Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left The Church of Christ, is this. The Church of Christ desperately needs to reevaluate its doctrine and its attitude toward its doctrine. Good Bible students and faithful servants of God are leaving because of the way they're treated over doctrinal disagreements. These questions should be asked, "If they're good Bible students and faithful servants, why are they reaching different conclusions? Is it right to be dogmatic about those differences?"

I'm not saying that doctrine should change just to keep people. That's not what I'm saying at all. Not even close. What I'm saying is this. When most of the people who are leaving are very good Bible students and they're citing doctrine and attitude towards doctrine as the reason for leaving, shouldn't that get someone's attention? Shouldn't that be a red flag that the doctrine and the attitude toward the doctrine are possibly wrong?

Is the Church of Christ truly open to the possibility that it is wrong on some things? My experience and the experience of many in this survey show that generally, the Church of Christ is not wiling to admit its own errors, especially doctrinal errors. If they don't admit their errors, how can they ever overcome them and grow to be more like Him?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Agree to Disagree

Usually, when you hear "Let's just agree to disagree" that means that the two sides have discussed something and neither has been effective in persuading the other. For the parties involved, agreement on the topic is not likely to happen, so they "agree to disagree". Sometimes that's the best solution to a disagreement.

But that's not what I'm talking about right now when I say "agree to disagree."

One thing I've noticed over the last 20+ years is that all too often, Christians like to disagree. Sometimes they disagree with those outside the church. But mostly, they disagree with those not in the same kind of church. So, a church becomes a group of people who all agree with each other that they disagree with everyone else. Their identity becomes the points of disagreement with other churches.

I've seen this focus on disagreement over and over, and I especially see it on Facebook.

Recently I recommended a quote to a friend. I knew he agreed with the quote and I thought the quote expressed the sentiment eloquently. But the author of the quote is not a member of the same religious tribe. So, the response was something like, "I don't think I would agree with everything he says, but I like the quote."

A couple of years ago, there was a viral youtube video by Jefferson Bethke called "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus". I recommended it on my Facebook page. I wrote a note about it. And I got some very harsh private feedback because I don't agree with what Jeff Bethke teaches and because he is not in my religious tribe, but I recommended the video anyway. At that time, I felt the need to put in a "I don't agree with everything..." disclaimer, something I no longer see the need to do. It's safe to assume that I don't completely agree with any author or speaker that I quote, so such a disclaimer is superfluous.

A Facebook friend recently posted a link about sharing the gospel with gay friends. It was a well done article that expressed the nature and ubiquity of sin and the forgiveness of God very well and exhorted humility. But it was written by someone in a different kind of church. The first comment was a preacher from his religious tribe saying basically, "I don't agree with everything the article says, but it's pretty good."

And I see this. All. The. Time. Over and over. I disagree with this, but...

What the what? Since when do I have to agree with everything someone says before I recommend something he says? And why do people have a tendency to get so focused on disagreement? 

This focus on disagreement is something the Bible warns us about. In the Bible, it's called strife, contention, variance, quarreling, wrangling, etc. It's not good. It's a work of the flesh. (Gal. 5:20; 1 Cor. 3:3; 1 Tim. 6:4; Rom. 1:29 etc. etc. etc.) Don't look for points of disagreement. It will consume and devour you and in turn, you will consume and devour those with whom you disagree.

Oh I admit to being guilty of this. I'm not on my moral high horse here. I've sat through sermons looking for points of disagreement. I've sat listening intently for a mistake so I could point it out. It's horrible and destructive. I've listened to sermons and then talked to people about what all the preacher said that we disagreed with. My partners and I agreed to disagree with the preacher and we enjoyed discussing the disagreement. It's not healthy. Remember, love does not provoke. Love does not think evil. Love does not dishonor others.

For the past 20+ years, I've been trained to find points of disagreement. I've been trained to look for errors. I want to change that focus and look for agreement. I want to find common ground. I want to be more positive. I want to look for what's right. I want to ask, "What good thing can I learn from this author or speaker?" instead of "What bad thing can I expose?"

As I mentioned in a previous post, some say I believe "anything goes". Yet here I am again pointing out something that's wrong. Looking for points of disagreement is wrong. Seeking an argument is wrong. Looking for variance with someone else is a work of the flesh. It robs us of joy and this nit-picking attitude comes from our enemy. It does not come from love.

If the church is known for what it disapproves or for its disagreement, then I fear that contention, strife, variance, quarreling, discord, etc. have a stronghold on the church. Jesus said that His disciples would be known for how we love one another. How about instead of agreeing with each other to disagree with everyone else, let's agree to not be so disagreeable.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

God's Version of Your Story

This post does not contain my own ideas. I recently read "Love Wins" by Rob Bell and this portion of the book stood out to me, and I wanted to share it. I recommend that you pick up this book and read it.

In Chapter 7, Bell tells the story found in Luke 15:11-32 that we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son. I'd recommend that you read that story from the text again now before proceeding with reading this post.

The story goes that a man had two sons, and the younger one asked for his portion of the inheritance early. The father unexpectedly gives him what he asks. The younger son takes his portion, moves far away, and wastes all of it. After wasting everything, he had nothing and became hungry and ended up taking a job feeding pigs who had better food than he had. He realized that his father's slaves had a better life than he had. So, he decided that he'd go home. But he didn't expect to go home as a son. He was going to go home and beg his father to allow him to be a slave, knowing that he didn't deserve to be considered a son any more. Again, unexpectedly, his father runs to meet him and doesn't listen to his spiel about being unworthy and throws a party because of his return.

And often we stop telling the story there. It is a beautiful story if we stop there. The father runs to meet his son who was lost and celebrates with a feast. But there is more. Many in the church have never been lost in the same sense that the younger son was. Many in the church are more like the older son.

The older son was angry and refused to join the feast. His father begged him. But the older son thought he had been treated unfairly. He thought he had slaved for his father and had never disobeyed. Even though he had obeyed and slaved all this time, his father had never even given him a goat, let alone a calf. The older son is angry at his father because of how graciously he is treating his younger brother. Yet the Father says, "All that I have is yours."

Rob Bell's discussion of this story is excellent. Listen to what he says about the younger brother.
The younger brother tells a story. It is his version of his story, and as he heads home in shame after squandering his father’s money, he rehearses the speech he’ll give his father. He is convinced he’s “no longer worthy” to be called his father’s son. That’s the story he’s telling, that’s the one he’s believing. It’s stunning, then, when he gets home and his father demands that the best robe be put on him and a ring placed on his finger and sandals on his feet. Robes and rings and sandals are signs of being a son. Although he’s decided he can’t be a son anymore, his father tells a different story. One about return and reconciliation and redemption. One about his being a son again.

The younger son has to decide whose version of his story he’s going to trust: his or his father’s. One in which he is no longer worthy to be called a son or one in which he’s a robe-, ring-, and sandal-wearing son who was dead but is alive again, who was lost but has now been found.

There are two versions of his story.
And his father’s.

He has to choose which one he will live in.
Which one he will believe.
Which one he will trust.

Bell, Rob (2011-03-15). Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (pp. 165-166). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 

Now, listen to the what Bell says about the older brother.
Same, it turns out, for the older brother. He too has his version of his story. He tells his father, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours
(he can’t even say his brother’s name)
who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

So much in so few words. One senses he’s been saving it up for years, and now out it comes, with venom.

First, in his version of events, he’s been slaving for his father for years. That’s how he describes life in his father’s house: slaving. That directly contradicts the few details we’ve been given about the father, who appears to be anything but a slave driver.

Second, he says his father has never even given him a goat. A goat doesn’t have much meat on it, so even in conjuring up an image of celebration, it’s meager. Lean. Lame. The kind of party he envisions just isn’t that impressive. What he reveals here is what he really thinks about his father: he thinks he’s cheap.

Third, he claims that his father has dealt with his brother according to a totally different set of standards. He thinks his father is unfair. He thinks he’s been wronged, shorted, shafted. And he’s furious about it.

All with the party in full swing in the background.

The father isn’t rattled or provoked. He simply responds, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” And then he tells him that they have to celebrate.

“You are always with me,
and everything I have is yours.”

In one sentence the father manages to tell an entirely different story about the older brother.

First, the older son hasn’t been a slave. He’s had it all the whole time. There’s been no need to work, obey orders, or slave away to earn what he’s had the whole time.

Second, the father hasn’t been cheap with him. He could have had whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it. Everything the father owns has always been his, which includes, of course, fattened calves. All he had to do was receive.

Third, the father redefines fairness. It’s not that his father hasn’t been fair with him; it’s that his father never set out to be fair in the first place. Grace and generosity aren’t fair; that’s their very essence. The father sees the younger brother’s return as one more occasion to practice unfairness. The younger son doesn’t deserve a party— that’s the point of the party. That’s how things work in the father’s world. Profound unfairness.

People get what they don’t deserve.
Parties are thrown for younger brothers who squander their inheritance.

After all,
“You are always with me,
and everything I have is yours.”

What the father does is retell the older brother’s story. Just as he did with the younger brother. The question, then, is the same question that confronted the younger brother— will he trust his version of his story or his father’s version of his story?

Who will he trust?
What will he believe?

The difference between the two stories is,
after all,
the difference between heaven . . . and hell.

Bell, Rob (2011-03-15). Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (pp. 165-169). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 
Whose side of your story do you believe? Your side of the story?
Or God's side of your story?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Who Should Be There?

Just as background for this post, I'll mention that for some reason, I'm sometimes accused of believing that anything goes. I'm accused of believing that it's wrong to tell someone that something they're doing is wrong. Think about that for a moment. It's self defeating. If anything goes, then anything goes, including telling someone that something is wrong.

To be clear, I do not believe that anything goes. I believe that excessive and harsh condemnation is wrong. I believe that "excessive and harsh condemnation" describes what I see a lot of Christians doing. But that doesn't mean that I believe that it's wrong to help someone identify and overcome sin.

I believe that God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him (John 3:17). When we are excessively and harshly condemning the world, we are not following Christ.

Having provided that background... Recently, I was having a conversation with someone about what I believe and why some of my beliefs have changed. During this conversation, the person said something like this: "You just want everyone to be okay."

I wasn't sure how to respond. My initial thought was to try (again) to explain that I don't believe that "anything goes." But then I thought about it and realized that it's a true statement. Yeah. I do. I just want everyone to be okay. I want everyone to be saved. I do. In fact, I want that badly. And the more I think about it, the more I can't understand why someone doesn't. Why would you want someone not to be okay? Why would you want someone not to be saved?

Who should be in heaven?

Who do you want to be there?

Is there anyone that you hope doesn't make it to heaven?

I want everyone to be there.

For God so loved the world.

There. I said it. That's what I want. I hope everyone is in heaven. Furthermore, I can't imagine why someone thinks that's wrong. I can't understand why someone thinks that's a negative thing for me to believe. I don't understand why someone wants someone to be in hell, especially if they believe that hell is eternal conscious torment. I don't understand that level of contempt for another human being.

In fact, God wants everyone to be saved. God wants everyone to be in heaven. Every. One. Of. Us. And He wants that much more than I want it and He's paid a much bigger price for it than I ever could.
1 John 2:2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
And when I consider the context of 1 John, that makes me want this even more. 1 John 2:1 says that John is writing those things "that you may not sin". And verse 3 says that we know that we know Him if we keep His commandments. That's precisely what I want. I want everyone to know Him. I want everyone to know that they know Him. I want everyone to "not sin" because sin leads to destruction. I want everyone there because I want everyone to do what is good.
1 Tim. 2:3-4 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 
In fact, Paul says that God wants exactly this, too. God wants all to be saved. God wants all to come to the knowledge of the truth. God wants everyone there. All. People. Me. You. My enemies. Your enemies. God wants us all there with Him.
2 Pet. 3:9  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
Peter says the same thing. Peter's statement is in a context of judgment that is coming. The ungodly will be judged. And Peter says that there is coming a new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells. And not only are we waiting for it, we're eagerly anticipating it. Hoping for it to come speedily. Though the language there doesn't necessarily imply this, it makes me think of our actions having influence over this coming. It makes me think that we can, by bringing light and hope to others, hasten the coming of the new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells.

Now to be clear, I'm not saying that everyone will be there. I don't know who will and who won't, and frankly, neither do you. Also, if the new heaven and new earth is the dwelling place of righteousness, then it follows that sin won't be there. So, the people who are there are the people in whom God has completed His redemptive work, freeing them from sin. So, I'm not saying that everyone will be there and I'm not saying that those who are not redeemed can be or will even want to be there. I'm saying that yes, I want everyone to be there. I want everyone to be okay and God wants that, too.

Who should be there? Everyone.  God wants everyone to turn to Him and turn away from sin. That's what I want, too. I want everyone to be made more like Him.